The saga of Edward Snowden and the “hijacking” of Evo Morales’s presidential jet continues to reverberate in Bolivia, where it has reignited a controversy over Brazil’s grant of political asylum to rightwing politician Roger Pinto.
Pinto, a major landowner and ex-prefect of the Pando department, was allied with the four lowlands opposition governors of the so-called “Media Luna” who rebelled against Morales in 2008. As a senator in the Bolivian congress, he has been a leader of the political opposition and an outspoken Morales critic.
Since May 2012, Pinto has been holed up in the Brazilian embassy in La Paz, claiming persecution and harassment for his (unsubstantiated) accusations of drug trafficking and corruption at high levels of the Morales administration. President Dilma Rousseff granted his request for political asylum 10 days later, but Morales has refused to allow Pinto's safe passage out of the country.
Morales charges that Pinto is merely seeking to avoid the pending criminal charges against him, including unscrupulous land dealings and other economic crimes against the state dating from his tenure as Pando prefect. A Pando court recently sentenced him (in absentia) to a one-year prison term. Pinto has also been implicated, but not charged, in connection with the 2008 Pando massacre, in which 11 peasant supporters of Morales were killed and more than 50 wounded in an ambush, with the alleged complicity of rightwing departmental officials.
After the Snowden incident, Pinto’s supporters were quick to accuse Morales of hypocrisy in championing asylum for Snowden while impeding the same rights for Pinto. They point to the strongly worded resolution adopted by the Mercosur bloc (including Bolivia), which repudiates “any activity that could undermine the authority of States to grant and fully implement the right of asylum.”
In a new twist, on July 14 the Brazilian news outlet Diario do Poder—citing anonymous diplomatic sources—charged that Bolivia had conducted an unauthorized search of an official Brazilian plane carrying Defense Minister Celso Amorim in October 2012, suspecting that Pinto might be on board. The incident, described as “humiliating” to Amorim, was kept secret by the Brazilian government. Two days later, the story was picked up by Valor Económico, Brazil’s leading business periodical, and then spread widely through the Latin American and western press.
The parallels to Morales’s forced detention in Vienna, at the behest of U.S. officials searching for Snowden, were almost uncanny except for one major problem: the plane search actually occurred in October 2011, one year earlier, and a full 6 months before Pinto sought shelter at the Brazilian embassy.
The Brazilian government was quick to issue a clarifying statement, correcting the date of the incident and denying its connection to Pinto. It noted that a complaint had been duly registered with Bolivia through diplomatic channels at the time, warning that any repetition would warrant Brazilian reprisals, and that no further infractions had occurred.
For its part, the Morales government assured that it had not authorized the inspections, which apparently involved three separate planes. The searches were conducted by antinarcotics agents who have subsequently been sanctioned. The Brazilian diplomatic planes, Bolivian officials alleged, were not properly identified.
Four days after the revelations, Morales formally apologized to Brazil and assured that steps would be taken to prevent any future recurrence. He expressed confidence that the “excellent relations” between Brazil and Bolivia have in no way been damaged by the inspection incident, or the Pinto affair generally.
To be sure, while Bolivia’s interactions with Brazil have been fraught at times- including recently over the proposed TIPNIS highway, when Bolivia cancelled its construction contract with a Brazilian company and its loan from Brazil’s development bank—both countries have an abiding interest in maintaining stable relations. Brazil is a key economic partner for Bolivia, importing 53% of its natural gas and investing heavily in its infrastructure, hydrocarbons, and agribusiness sectors.
Judging from the way both Rousseff and Morales have downplayed the airplane incident, both governments seem anxious to put this latest controversy behind them. Morales has charged that political opponents in both countries are “dedicated to setting us against each other” by spreading false rumors and stirring up conflict.
Outside Bolivia, many western news outlets never bothered to correct the original story and have had a field day chastising Morales for allegedly practicing the same violations of national sovereignty at home that he has accused his U.S. and European detractors of committing in the Snowden case.
As for the Pinto asylum controversy itself, it’s hard to tell what effect it has had, if any, on relations between Bolivia and Brazil. Pinto is the first—and only—of the Media Luna opposition leaders to obtain asylum in Brazil (others have secured protection from Paraguay and Peru).
Brazil’s reasons for granting asylum to Pinto have never been articulated. As a matter of principle, the right of asylum is protected in four separate articles of Brazil’s constitution. President Dilma Rousseff, herself a victim of political persecution, has been a strong advocate for asylum, and her predecessor Lula provided high-profile political refuge (though not formal asylum status) to deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa for four months in 2009.
On a more practical level in the Pinto case, Brazil—which shares common borders with the world’s three largest cocaine-producing countries—may be interested in the opportunity to learn more about alleged links to high-level drug trafficking within the Morales administration.
Still, Brazil also has a tradition of avoiding confrontation in its international relations—as demonstrated by its failure to offer asylum to Edward Snowden, presumably in the interest of maintaining cordial ties with its largest foreign investor and second largest trading partner, the United States. The Morales government remains adamant that international conventions preclude it from facilitating asylum for persons, such as Pinto, who are subject to pending judicial processes for common crimes, a position long known to Brazil.
It’s hard to imagine that either country would be willing to jeopardize their mutually beneficial economic relationship for the sake of Roger Pinto. While the heightened focus on asylum in the wake of the Snowden affair may help to resolve Pinto’s contradictory status, it’s also possible that Pinto's current asylum “stalemate” has the tacit consent of both governments, and may be the most politically expedient option for the immediate future.
Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner and the author of NACLA’s weekly blog Rebel Currents, covering Latin American social movements and progressive governments (nacla.org/blog/rebel-currents).